Filmmaker Peter Jackson sure leans into the whole pipe-weed thing in his movie adaptations of Tolkien. In The Fellowship of the Ring, rival sorcerer Saruman glares at Gandalf and, in a judgmental tone, says, “Your love of the Halfling’s leaf has clearly slowed your mind.”
Meanwhile, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, woodland magician and wild man Radagast the Brown calms right down after sucking from Gandalf’s pipe.
It makes you wonder, what exactly is this so-called pipe-weed? And was Gandalf really even a wizard, or just high as Hobbit balls? The answers are right there in Tolkien’s books.
“The Hobbit’s ‘Leaf’ is explicitly tobacco,” says Corey “Tolkien Professor” Olsen, president of Signum University and master of all things Tolkien. “Tolkien used the word ‘tobacco’ freely in The Hobbit. He stopped using the word in The Lord of the Rings not because he changed his mind about the plant, but for linguistic reasons. He had a sort of informal rule for himself that, in order to maintain the right feel for The Lord of the Rings, he didn’t want to use words that entered English after 1500. ‘Tobacco’ is a newfangled word, so he combined two old words and called it, simply, pipe-weed instead.”
“He also makes the identification with tobacco explicit in the ‘Prologue’ to The Lord of the Rings, when he explains that the Hobbits smoke ‘a herb, which they called pipe-weed or leaf, a variety probably of Nicotiana’ (in Section 2 of the ‘Prologue,’ called ‘Concerning Pipe-weed’). Nicotiana is, of course, the scientific name of the tobacco plant,” Olsen continues. “Tolkien was himself also an avid pipe-smoker throughout his adult life, so some of the Hobbit habits are a kind of personal fantasy projection — the Shire is something close to Tolkien’s personal ideal living conditions, and there would be pipe-smoking there for him!”
But if Tolkien was so clear about pipe-weed being mere tobacco, why then does Jackson make it out to be something more? “Jackson’s play on the apparently psychotropic effects of pipe-weed in the films was always, to me, very annoying,” Olsen says. “I believe that he did it not for cultural reasons, but because he thought it was funny. The actors certainly thought it was funny, and I know that Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan really hammed that up — they talk about that. The idea is suggested, I believe, primarily in Tolkien’s own linguistic choice: The use of the word ‘weed.’ Especially to an American audience, one cannot talk about people smoking weed without them imagining Hobbits toking on the Mary Jane, and once that concept is established, the comic potential becomes irresistible to most — Jackson and company certainly couldn’t resist it. But this was an accident of history. Tolkien might possibly have been aware of the fact that Americans called marijuana ‘weed,’ but I rather doubt it, personally. If so, he might have made a change to prevent confusion.”
After all, if pipe-weed really was marijuana, the movies might have gone a little more like this: